Notes from the sermon by Toby Parsons 27 January 2019
“The outsider is among us, beware.”
I saw these words scrawled on a pavement in Leeds city centre on my way to work recently.
“The outsider is among us, beware.”
I don’t know about you, but my immediate reaction to those words was one of unease. I don’t know who wrote them, or what they were really meaning, but it seems like a message that’s intended to promote suspicion and fear. There’s a sense that somebody or something is different, that we don’t really understand or connect with them, and that consequently we should distrust them. In this time of uncertainty in particular, it doesn’t seem helpful to promote division and hostility.
And then I started to wonder about Jesus. Not whether he’d have said those words – I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have done, unless in a challenging parable that we’d try to unpack one Sunday morning. But whether they’d have been said about him. And I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that they would indeed have been heard at the start and end of his life.
We can think back to the visit of the magi – the three wise men, or, if you were here for the nativity a few weeks ago and watched Andrea and Hannah riding imaginary camels, the two wise women. But whatever their number and gender, their purpose in seeking a new king was far from welcome at Herod’s palace. He indeed would have seen Jesus as an outsider, and as a very threatening one at that.
But I suspect it wasn’t only Herod who might have spoken those words. And perhaps it wouldn’t just have been about Jesus himself. Mary, too, would have been considered an outsider. Even though Joseph stood by her, she was an unmarried mother and as such would have faced shame, ridicule and potentially a lot worse. I watched the film The Nativity just before Christmas, and one question that it implicitly addresses is why Mary and Joseph didn’t just stay with relatives in Bethlehem – it was Joseph’s home town, he was bound to have extended family there, and the bonds of family and hospitality in that culture were strong. The answer the film weaves into the storyline is that the family wouldn’t associate with Mary due to her pregnancy – she was surely an outsider, treated with a mixture of fear and contempt.
And of course at the other end of Jesus’s life, at his trial and crucifixion, there’s a real sense of him being turned into outsider, abandoned by all but a select few – indeed one of those who stood by him was Mary, his mother. And whilst that might have been simple maternal instinct, or a better understanding of his divine purpose, you wonder how in those moments her memories of having been an outsider herself affected out.
But I wonder about the rest of Jesus’s life too, the years between the stable and the cross. We read regularly about his relatively short period of active ministry, travelling and preaching. And I know that my picture of that is probably an overly-sanitised one. If I think of him preaching to a crowd or arriving in a town, it’s normally sunny and pleasantly warm – rather than dusty and scorchingly hot! And my mental picture implies that he’s welcome. If he’s asked awkward questions by scheming religious stalwarts, then even that’s still in quite an open, non-threatening way – a respectful debate, not an edgy, confrontational, hostile environment. But I wonder if it was often more like the latter, if Jesus – whilst being confident in his mission from God – felt unwelcome and threatened, with the real possibility of arrest or of mob justice.
And what about before his active ministry? How would the 20 year old Jesus have related to the concept of outsiders? Well, the short answer is that we don’t know. But we can be certain that there would have been those who were shunned by society, those who were considered unclean at any given point, and those who quite simply felt they didn’t fit in. If Jesus had been completely tearing the rule book up in his early years and inviting every local outsider to wild house parties, that would probably have made it into the bible! We do get a snippet about a younger Jesus in Luke 2, when he was inadvertently left behind in Jerusalem by his parents at the age of twelve. Luke goes on to say that Jesus continued advancing in wisdom and stature, and found favour with God and men. If he’d openly challenged the religious or political authorities, or broken with social expectation in the ways he did later, surely Luke and others would have recorded it. So I suggest we’d be wrong to think that Jesus was forcefully over-turning social convention throughout his twenties.
But I wonder if he was still quietly affirming the outsider. If, in modern equivalents, he was the one making time to speak to the person begging on the corner of the street; if he occasionally popped round to the eccentric person who rarely left their house and who everyone else was slightly wary of; if he was the one who didn’t internally judge the passer-by with the extreme appearance, but wanted to know the person underneath.
And if those small actions were being taken, then perhaps they were having an impact – not on the scale his later ministry and ultimate death would, but still important to individuals who’d remember the way he reached out to them. That’s speculation, of course, but I think there are enough examples from his active ministry to make it plausible – his reaching out to adulterers, tax collectors, Samaritans. And it’s certainly more realistic than my image of gentle debates in pleasantly sunny locations! So I think that overall, it’s fair to say that what we learn from Jesus is to welcome the outsider.
In last week’s service, John spoke about gold, frankincense and myrrh as representing the past, present and future. The use of myrrh as an anointing oil prompts us to think about our purpose and calling – how we work for God and others as we go forward. John’s sermon defined anointing as “setting apart, signifying for a special purposes” and talked of “collectively recognising a gift, a vocation, a path, a purpose”.
Now when I reflect about callings and vocations, I tend to think either of fantastically dedicated people who bring practical relief in extreme situations – the aid workers who respond to natural disasters; the health workers who provide care in refugee camps. Or I think of those who minister God’s word on a daily basis – Heston and other vicars; perhaps nuns or monks. And I’m none of those, so I can easily end up thinking that I don’t have a calling – and I’m guessing that I’m not alone here in feeling that.
But if we think back to today’s reading, we’re told that every contribution matters, every part of the whole is important. The verses from Corinthians that we heard this week put it in the context of the body. The smallest organ in our bodies is the pineal gland, in the brain. The philosopher Descartes considered it “the principal seat of the soul and the place in which all our thoughts are formed”. Even if that’s not reflected in today’s scientific wisdom, we do know that the pineal gland produces something called melatonin, which affects our sleep patterns. And as we all know from those nights when we’ve just not been able to doze off, or when we’ve woken every hour, on the hour, sleep is pretty important. Our smallest organ is by no means our least important.
And last week’s reading talked of different spiritual gifts, and how we should each use the skills with which we’ve been blessed – without expecting to be able to do everything, and without looking down on some gifts as being less worthy than others.
We each have our own calling and purpose, and it sets us apart. Those who are musically gifted are different from those whose skills are in organisation. Those who are passionate about environmental issues are different from those who love to offer pastoral care. None of us can do everything, although we may often try, and end up sinking.
And of course in some ways our calling will mark us as outsiders within our wider communities. For a few, that’s been in fundamental and life-changing ways, which have become widely known. We might think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood out against the Nazi regime in Germany, or Desmond Tutu, in both his opposition to apartheid and his subsequent calls for reconciliation. But for most of us, it may be as simple as our attempts not to be caught up in consumer culture, and instead to take moments when we turn from the material to the spiritual. Or our efforts not to bite back at criticism or ridicule, but to focus on healing and forgiveness. These things may make us stand out, and in turn draw attention to the place of God and Jesus in our lives.
And so for each of us, there’s the challenge of thinking about what our own purpose and calling is – what are we being set apart to do? It may not be as prophetic, as transformational, as the calling that Jesus announced for himself in today’s gospel reading from Luke, when he spoke of proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the captives, and recovery of sight for the blind. And we may not have the same confidence that Jesus did when he stood up in the synagogue and announced so clearly that “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. But when we think about the gifts of the magi, and we move from the gold of the past and the frankincense of the present to the myrrh of the future, we’re encouraged to think afresh about what our calling is.
We started with the phrase “the outsider is among us, beware”. I said at the beginning that it made me uneasy – and it still does. But if we were to lose the final word, if we were just to say that the outsider is among us, I think it starts becoming more of a positive statement about where we want to be as God’s church. Jesus welcomed the outsider, and we aspire to do that today. And we can go further too, and put ourselves in the position of the outsider. Maybe as one of the seemingly few voices speaking out about social or environmental injustices in our society. Or maybe as one whose particular passion just makes us different from the majority of our church – perhaps we’re the one who truly loves collecting, copying and filing electoral roll forms in alphabetical order. Perhaps we’re the one who’s content to wash and dry the last cup an hour or so after the end of the service. Whatever our interest – our purpose – our calling – it sets us apart as one of the many unique individuals who come together through faith.
We can each be anointed, as we’re reminded through the symbolic gift of myrrh.
We can each be signified for special purpose, even if it seems routine to us.
And we can each know that, even when our calling sets us apart, we’re uniquely valuable to God, to whom no-one need be an outsider.